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Artist, who grew up in foster care, says try to be happy. The longest life is short


Time now for StoryCorps. The artist Tchin, known for designing for brands such as Cartier, belongs to the Narragansett tribe. He grew up as a foster kid in Rhode Island and Virginia. And as he told his daughter, Xiao Hui Star, he was often one of the few Indigenous people in town.

TCHIN: I looked different than everybody else. There was either white people or Black people, and there was me (laughter), and so I stood out. And the cops would stop me sometimes, even as a young kid, they would stop me and go, you know, you don't belong in this neighborhood. I was living in Rhode Island, and Rhode Island School of Design had a, like, summer scholarship, so I entered the competition. And the art teacher said, they don't want people like you. I stopped drawing ever since then.


TCHIN: Yeah, it hurt a long time.

STAR: How old were you?

TCHIN: I might have been 13. People would say, like, you know, you're going to end up in jail, or you're not going to ever become anything or anything like that. And I was like, I'm going to prove them wrong. I need to go somewhere. I need more than this. And I went to New York. And I slept in hallways, and I slept in the subways, and I slept in Grand Central Station. I really couldn't read and write very well. And when I did have jobs, I usually weren't able to keep those jobs. And then I learned to read and write by forcing myself to read an encyclopedia. And I applied to go to an art school.

STAR: I would like to hear more about how you built the confidence to pursue an artistic career, which I see as quite risky.

TCHIN: It was a little scary, but because mommy did so much supporting us, it wasn't as scary as if I was the only breadwinner. And my joke was always that I did the cooking and the sewing, and mommy did the brickwork and the plumbing. And when you girls were growing up, I made it a point that we would always have family meals on the weekend. And I wanted to raise my girls as really strong, powerful women. I would always say, what can I do as a parent to make your life better? You girls would say, I didn't like when you raised your voice, and then I would learn to not be so tough on you. But you're navigating the world very well, all of you.

STAR: I'm 38, the age that you were when you had me. What advice do you have for me?

TCHIN: The sad thing about human beings is that we tend to remember the unhappy things. And I think my advice to you is just try to be happy. The longest life is short.


MARTÍNEZ: That's Tchin and his daughter Xiao Hui Star. They joined StoryCorps in Philadelphia, and their conversation is archived in the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "SAGE THE HUNTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jo Corona